January is the month when many people are thinking about sport and exercise as part of their New Year’s Resolutions. So in their regular Beyond the Secret Garden feature, Darren Chetty and Karen Sands-O’Connor kick off this Olympic year with a column about sports and children’s books.
2019 was an interesting year for fiction with a sports theme. The list of nominated books for the 2020 Carnegie Medal includes books that use sport as a major plot device, and some of these are by or about people of colour. It can be illuminating to take a look at the way sport is has been used in books about people of colour over the years.
In Britain, people of colour have been participating in British professional and semi-professional sport for well over a hundred years. Footballers like Walter Tull were playing before World War I. Thanks largely to the research of Phil Vasili, books for children such as Walter Tull’s Scrapbook by Michaela Morgan (Lincoln 2013), and Dan Lyndon and Roger Wade Walker’s Walter Tull: Footballer, Soldier, Hero (Collins 2011) appeared over the past decade. However, sportspeople of colour were largely ignored in British children’s literature until relatively recently.
Fictional depictions of contemporary Black or Asian Britons as part of team sports were also rare; Tony Drake’s Playing it Right (1979) depicted both Black and Asian players on a school cricket team (and included themes of social class and racism into a lively narrative) and Gillian Cross’s Swimathon! (1986) featured a Black British girl as part of a school swim team, but these were the exceptions rather than the rule. Interestingly, some children’s nonfiction about team sports continue to ignore British-born players of colour; the 2017 Fantastic Footballers: 40 Inspiring Icons, for example, features only Didier Drogba and Paul Pogba as Black icons playing on British teams.
More common historically was the sports story about the character of colour using an individual sport, such as boxing, to find a way to fit in to or survive in British society. Sport gave a character a chance to be seen, and thus to be seen as human, and increased that character’s chance of survival or success in Britain. Marjorie Darke’s pioneering trilogy about a formerly-enslaved Black Briton and his descendants included two focused on sport. The First of Midnight (1977) concerns a formerly enslaved man forced into the boxing ring to recoup a white woman’s lost fortune before he finally escapes Britain altogether. The third book in the trilogy, Comeback (1986) is a contemporary story about a girl who uses gymnastics to both construct and understand her identity in British society. These seem to be the options presented to Black Britons during the 1970s and 1980s: go “back home” or learn to fit in. More recently, Catherine Johnson’s Hero (2001) has another Black boxer in the early 19th century who is sent back into slavery in the Caribbean while his daughter learns to become a prizefighter herself in order to rescue him.
Boxing continues to be prominent in sports books about characters of colour. Nikesh Shukla’s The Boxer was nominated for a 2020 Carnegie Medal, along with another boxing book – Gloves Off by Louisa Reid. In some ways, these books are similar; both main characters learn to box because they are threatened by others. But Reid’s Lily, who is white, takes up boxing to defend herself against bullies that she knows, while Shukla’s Sunny, who is British Asian, learns to box in response to an unprovoked attack by unknown assailants. Lily has her home life where she feels comfortable and safe, but for Sunny, there is no place that is safe from racism. This is not to make Reid’s story any less important; bullying is real, and painful for those who experience it. But it is a different experience to never feel safe because racism is pervasive within a society and can appear at any moment. The attack that Sunny suffers is by just a few older boys, but he later learns they are part of a far-right movement whose members are angry – still angry, in 2019 – about “immigration”.
A similar theme can be found in another Carnegie-nominated title, Catherine Bruton’s No Ballet Shoes in Syria. Bruton’s story concerns a more recent set of immigrants, a refugee family from Syria. Although they, like Sunny, encounter racist attitudes and comments, the biggest problem for them is the dehumanization of refugees and immigrants by society as a whole. Being seen as less than human by racist landlords is amplified by an asylum process where paperwork is more important than people. For Aya, dance – physical movement – allows her to take up space legitimately in Britain, and be seen for the human that she is. In her struggle, she is helped by a ballet teacher who was also, when young, a refugee; and by a Black British girl named Dotty, who does not quite fit in to her ballet class (being too “messy” and lively). People who are “othered”, Bruton (who is white) seems to be saying, will help other outsiders more readily than those who aren’t.
Musa Okwonga’s Raheem Sterling (2020) is part of Scholastic’s Football Legends series. Sterling’s journey to the very top of professional football provides ample material for a story that would interest a football fan – but Okwonga’s text deserves an even broader readership. This is principally for two reasons. First, he employs his skills as a sports journalist to bring into focus a moving, personal story. By narrating imagined conversations between actual people, in the style of a docudrama, Sterling’s life is made vivid for readers. The dates and statistics that often bog down football writing are presented in the epilogue in narrative form, allowing Okwonga to focus instead on the drama and emotion of Sterling’s journey from a child in Jamaica to a schoolboy kicking a ball a short distance from Wembley Stadium to a man scoring a hat-trick for England inside the stadium. He writes of the love between Raheem, his mother and sister and the sacrifices each make in order to build a better life for themselves and each other. Sterling’s resilience and determination to succeed are emphasized, but so too is his vulnerability.
Second, Okwonga writes sensitively of how Sterling has more than once found himself the subject of media conversations. The biography details Sterling’s decision to use Instagram to highlight the way a white team-mate was praised for buying a home for his parents whilst a black team-mate was criticized for being unduly extravagant when doing exactly the same thing: “In just a few weeks, the newspapers that were the biggest bullies changed how they wrote about Raheem, and about some other black footballers. They realized that Raheem was too popular for them to pick on, and that if they kept picking on black players then their readers wouldn’t like them so much.” (p78-9)
Whilst Sterling’s life-story shows us that racism has not gone away, his response to it perhaps marks a shift. Not only has he achieved on-pitch success in England like Black players from Walter Tull onwards, he has also spoken up about racism – and been applauded by many for doing so. In so doing, he has rejected the ‘go back or fit in’ binary that has been presented to so many sportspeople of colour, and instead achieved success as a team-player on his own terms.
Karen Sands-O’Connor is the British Academy Global Professor for Children’s Literature at Newcastle University. Her books include Children’s Publishing and Black Britain 1965-2015 (Palgrave Macmillan 2017).
Darren Chetty is a teacher, doctoral researcher and writer with research interests in education, philosophy, racism, children’s literature and hip hop culture. He is a contributor to The Good Immigrant, edited by Nikesh Shukla and the author, with Jeffrey Boakye, of What Is Masculinity? Why Does It Matter? And Other Big Questions. He tweets at @rapclassroom.
The Boxer, Niklesh Shukla, Hodder Children’s Books, 978-1444940695, £7.99 pbk
Gloves Off, Louisa Reid, Guppy Books, 978-1913101008, £10.99 hbk
No Ballet Shoes in Syria, Catherine Bruton, Nosy Crow, 978-1788004503, £6.99 pbk
Raheem Sterling, Musa Okwonga illus Stanley Chow, Scholastic, 978-1407198422, £5.99 pbk